We feast on fossil fuels to power our cars, trains, manufacturing plants and cities, but our reliance on them means we continue to flood our atmosphere with carbon dioxide now reaching levels higher than ever before.
What if we could directly capture CO2 from the atmosphere and turn that into fuel?
Previous research suggested the idea of sucking carbon out of the air -- "direct air capture" -- would prove too costly, with CO2 removal breaking the bank at $600 per ton. However, new research published in Joule on June 7 by Canadian company Carbon Engineering demonstrates that they can suck CO2 out of the air for between $94 and $232 per ton.
"It's unlike CO2 capture that's designed to work from a power plant. We're capturing CO2 from the atmosphere -- that's what our technology does," David Keith, founder of Carbon Engineering, tells CNET.
"The purpose of capturing from the air is that you can make low carbon fuels from renewable power."
The research is a major breakthrough demonstrating direct air capture technology can be economically viable and provide an alternative means of generating low-carbon fuels that can "drop-in" to existing infrastructure -- meaning they might be powering cars and planes in the future.
That's important because solar and wind power continue to get cheaper,, but Keith says that "doesn't allow us to make airplanes fly and trucks drive." By combining existing renewable energy sources with the direct air capture system, Carbon Engineering can generate fuel that is essentially carbon-neutral and affordable.
"You can make gasoline or diesel fuel [via direct air capture] but, of course, they didn't come from the ground, so the amount of carbon they emit when they burn is just the amount you used making them, so they're carbon neutral," says Keith.
Keith explains it like a relatively straightforward process, but Carbon Engineering have been working on the problem of affordably capturing CO2 at a pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia since 2015. That plant uses hydropower to pull the CO2 from the air and convert it to a synthetic fuel they hope can compete with traditional fossil fuels.
Having delivered the proof of concept and demonstrated the scalability and affordability of such a system, Keith feels positive about the future of Carbon Engineering's technology.
"I'm reasonably optimistic. The markets for these ultra-low carbon fuels really seem to be there now. California, especially, has a low carbon fuel standard, Canada's developing a standard … but these standards to reward low-carbon fuels are starting."
As we continue to search for ways to cut emissions and slow down the effects of climate change, our best shot may just be using a method that clearly "sucks".
Fight the Power: Take a look at who's transforming the way we think about energy.
Tech Enabled: CNET chronicles tech's role in providing new kinds of accessibility.